I Wanna Be Yours
Reviewed – 6th December 2019
“a script filled with warmth and humour that’s not afraid to tackle complex issues with nuance and maturity”
Spend more than a few minutes on Twitter and you’ll no doubt be confronted by a bevy of hot takes on attitudes to race in current society. And while they raise a number of crucial questions and issues, they can often feel intangible. Thankfully, Zia Ahmed’s I Wanna Be Yours is here to cut through the social media academia and let the ideas play themselves out in a fundamentally human and earnest way.
I Wanna Be Yours follows a blossoming romance between struggling actor Ella (Emily Stott) and struggling poet Haseeb (Ragevan Vasan), and the wider societal and cultural hurdles that they have to overcome in trying to make it work as an inter-racial couple. Events such as meeting your partner’s family for the first time that are already nerve-wracking take on a whole other level as Ella faces rejection from Haseeb’s aunt on account of being white and Haseeb has to stomach the entrenched racism in Ella’s family that has gone previously unchecked. However, these instances are largely not treated with the heaviness that is frequently seen when this subject matter is depicted – Ahmed is smartly selective in when to intensify the gravity and when to revel in the absurdity of other moments, such as Ella’s frantic Google search as to whether the black face paint used in Mummers’ Plays had racist origins or not. The result is a script filled with warmth and humour that’s not afraid to tackle complex issues with nuance and maturity.
Ahmed’s script also introduces a few surreal elements into the story, particularly one featuring a very literal elephant in the room, but they unfortunately feel half-baked and not fully committed to, culminating in an ending that tries to tie these elements together but consequently doesn’t feel as meaningful as it could have. The pacing also suffers from the themes and ideas not feeling like they’re being especially expanded upon in the second half of the play, and certain conflicts feel a little forced. However, one element which almost consistently endears is the relationship between Ella and Haseeb.
Both Stott and Vasan display a masterful characterisation of the text, fleshing out texture and colour in every line. Under the kinetic direction of Anna Himali Howard, their dynamism fully inhabited the space, which was bare save for an inexplicable carpet that looked like it had been stolen from the home of someone’s gran. Out-of-place carpets aside, the chemistry between the two was able to strike the difficult balance between them clearly exuding their love for each other without excluding the audience.
This is in part due to that Stott and Vasan were not so much a couple as a throuple, being joined throughout the play by Rachael Merry as an integrated BSL interpreter, who frequently enhanced the language and characterisation in the way her interpretation also served to physicalise the subtext and bring further layers to the experience. I Wanna Be Yours has many beautiful, cheeky, and hard-hitting moments, and it is undeniably exemplary in its accessibility, but the sum of its parts struggles to fully engage.
Reviewed by Ethan Doyle
Photography by The Other Richard
I Wanna Be Yours
Bush Theatre until 18th January
Previously reviewed at this venue:
Orange Tree Theatre
Reviewed – 11th September 2019
“a brilliant piece of writing, but its formal dazzle ultimately detracts from its emotional resonance”
In February of this year, The Guardian ran an article charting the rise of anti-Semitism across Europe. France reported a 74% increase in the number of offences against Jews in 2018 and Germany said the number of violent antisemitic attacks had surged by more than 60%. Here in the UK, the Community Security Trust (CST) – which monitors anti-Semitism among the Jewish community in Britain – said the 892 incidents so far reported this year mark a 10% increase on the same period last year. Islamophobia too is on the rise, and the disturbing trend of xenophobia and intolerance is being felt sharply by immigrants and the LGBTQ community Europe-wide. Against this backdrop, Orange Tree Theatre’s programming of Maya Arad Yasur’s 2018 play Amsterdam couldn’t be more timely.
By tracing the origin of an unpaid gas bill, which our unnamed protagonist finds herself having to deal with, Yasur invites us to look again at the devastation of the Jewish population of the Netherlands, 75% of whom were killed in the Holocaust, and also to consider the polyglot nature of modern Europe, and what it means to be an immigrant. She doesn’t forget that Jews and Arabs are each Semitic peoples, and in an early scene in a supermarket queue we are made aware of the shared experience of a woman wearing a hijab and our Jewish protagonist; of the exhaustion of the continual awareness of the second-guessing of one’s identity – ‘She’s thinking he’s thinking she’s thinking’ – and the weight of being viewed as a representative – ‘Why do I carry around this flag wherever I go?’.
Yasur has quite rightly chosen to address the palimpsest of European history with a degree of formal experimentation, recognising that this complex layering of experience, these different voices and memories, demand a non-linear narrative language. The text is shared by four actors, who tease out its meaning, tossing phrases between themselves like a ball, dancing with repetitions and tangents, punctuating with amplified Dutch phrases, leading us along the circuitous paths of this city and its history, toward a final narrative revelation and resolution.
Amsterdam is a demanding watch, and requires intellectual concentration. Such theatrical moments as there are are few and far between, and seem grafted on to the text to throw the audience a bone rather than stemming organically from the words themselves. The text is king here. And Matthew Xia (director) isn’t quite brave enough to let it fully reign. The success of The Brothers Size at the Young Vic in 2017 showed that London audiences can do stripped back, and this production could have followed its example. The chain metal curtain, the chairs, the glasses; all seemed superfluous, clumsy and dead, in contrast to the living, shape-shifting text, which is its own illustration. Similarly, this is a piece in which the performers are storytellers, not actors, and the show would have benefited from less verbal demonstration. Asking an actor not to act is difficult, but less is more in this instance, and the text didn’t need as much help as they gave it.
Amsterdam is a brilliant piece of writing, but its formal dazzle ultimately detracts from its emotional resonance. ‘No-one wants to hear about the Jews anymore’ our protagonist states, and Yasur’s writing is fierce in its counter-attack. But these words need to be felt; not merely heard. Theatre at its best can hit the heart, and Amsterdam, to its detriment, leaves this power unharnessed.
Reviewed by Andrew Wright
Photography by Helen Murray
Orange Tree Theatre until 12th October